A bunch of unrepentant '60s activists and socially concerned students met recently at Georgetown University. The usual suspects were there - people such as Todd Gitlin, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society; Marcus Raskin, a founder of the Institute for Policy Studies; and Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation.
There wasn't a centrist or conservative in sight, even at the university whose former dean of its School of Foreign Service, the Rev. Edmund A. Walsh, proposed to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy over dinner in January 1950 that the senator take up the issue of Communists in government to invigorate his political career, which was heading downhill fast. This was not long after the Soviet Union had exploded its first atomic bomb, and Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury. Mr. McCarthy began waving around his "lists" of Commies who had infiltrated every nook and cranny of the federal government.
Georgetown is a different place now, but Washington isn't, not with the Bush administration reviving one of Mr. McCarthy's favorite weapons: assaulting your opponents' patriotism. What's enormously different, though, is the tone of the opposition to the Iraqi war, compared with the one that Norman Mailer wrote about four decades ago in The Armies of the Night. (The Georgetown conference was convened to observe the 40th anniversary of the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, chronicled in Mr. Mailer's landmark book.)
To some extent, the conference had a modest self-congratulatory sheen, not just because liberals had "won" their fight - the war did end, although not "on schedule" - but also because they had mustered a muscular, unavoidable presence. They didn't stop the war in its tracks; that would have been like making an aircraft carrier halt on a dime. But the left retarded the war, and let Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon know that all their actions were being observed, and not many were laudable.
I wasn't immune from the smug satisfaction that salted the air at the Georgetown meeting, yet that faded quickly as I considered the situation today. At some point, someone asked the panelists whether they had speculated in 1967 where they would be 40 years in the future. Of course, no one had: They were creatures of the moment, defining themselves in the crucible of the instant.
But that question can be thrown on its head:
Forty years hence, what would a conference about opposition to the war in Iraq resemble? Would there be a sheepish hemming and hawing, a belated coming to terms with the low drama of political scheming and strategizing (the damned focus-grouping of it all!) that has supplanted principled and uncompromising opposition? Would there be a coming to terms with the timidity that is keeping voices silent and mute? Would there be a hoary regret that we stayed home, safe behind our computer screens, while convoys rattled through Iraq and our fine youths got killed and maimed, like the 25-year-old I know whose insides were littered by shrapnel and who has just left a hospital after another operation - his 17th?
I won't be around for that conference in the year 2047, and neither will Norman Mailer. But this war needs a brilliant testament to its spooky and brilliant perversity. It needs a Mailer, and it needs a Thoreau - someone who, while briefly in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, took his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's inquiry - "Henry, what are you doing in there?" - and turned it around: "Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?"
Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is "Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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